Chatting with a friend recently we got to talking about the films of Andrei Tarkovsky; he hadn’t seen any, but had been reading a reviews of the new box set which had whetted his appetite. I urged him to embark on a cinematic journey through extraordinary, visionary and beautiful films – masterpieces whose slow, mesmerising passages have haunted my imagination for the past four decades.
It’s been a few years since I last watched any of these films, so I said I’d join him on the journey – revisiting the seven full-length features that comprise the Tarkovsky canon so that we can share our thoughts as we go. I’ve started with Andrei Rublev – not necessarily the film I’d advise someone new to Tarkovsky to watch first: it’s three hours and 25 minutes long, shot almost entirely in black and white, without an obvious unifying narrative, in which for long stretches the central character doesn’t utter a word.
But this is a film of strange and terrible beauty that, like all of Tarkovsky’s films, is difficult to describe without sounding slightly demented. After watching a Tarkovsky film you feel not just that you have seen a movie, but that you have been through some kind of transfiguring experience.
The film ostensibly concerns the 15th century monk Andrei Rublev, ranked as one of the greatest medieval Russian icon painters. But little is known about Rublev, and the seven episodes in Rublev’s life that comprise the film are figments of Tarkovsky’s imagination, through which he aims to express ideas about art, faith and truth.
In his artistic testament, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, Tarkovsky wrote:
Why does art exist? Who needs it? Indeed does anybody need it? These are questions asked not only by the poet, but also by anyone who appreciates art – or, in that current expression all too symptomatic of the twentieth-century relationship between art and its audience – the ‘consumer’. Many ask themselves that question, and anyone connected with art gives his own particular answer. … Every artist is ruled by his own laws but these are by no means compulsory for anyone else. In any case it is perfectly clear that the goal for all art – unless of course it is aimed at the ‘consumer’, like a saleable commodity – is to explain to the artist himself and to those around him what man lives for, what is the meaning of his existence. To explain to people the reason for their appearance on this planet; or if not to explain, at least to pose the question.
In Andrei Rublev, Tarkovsky probes this question: what is the point of art, or of the artist – especially in a brutal world seemingly devoid of inspiration, beauty and fellow-feeling? Rublev struggles to create meaningful art in a time of hardship. For Tarkovsky, the doubt and tribulation experienced by Rublev 600 years earlier was not far removed from that of the artist in the Soviet Union in his own lifetime and that of his parents. Tarkovsky reflects on the responsibility of the artist to represent the truth, though Tarkovsky’s Rublev is not the heroic artist of Hollywood biopics: rather, he is one who is plagued by doubt – both about the value of his work, and his virtuousness as a human. He is a monk tempted by the flesh in an encounter with a woman from a community celebrating pagan rites, an artist doubting his skills in completing a church, and a Christian who commits a fundamental sin.
The film opens with a prologue in which a man fords a river, climbs a church tower and clambers aboard a primitive hot air balloon constructed from goat skins. He soars above the river, over the heads of curious monks and peasants watching below. Soon, balloon and balloonist crash to the earth; Tarkovsky cuts to an image of a horse ecstatically rolling on the ground, legs akimbo.
In just a few minutes, Tarkovsky has presented us with images of freedom – soaring from the constraints of earthly forces, and from religion and society. It’s a sequence which asserts the necessity of intellectual freedom, the search for truth and knowledge, in the face of dogma and authority:
The only condition of fighting for the right to create is faith in your own vocation, readiness to serve, and refusal to compromise. Artistic creation demands of the artist that he ‘perish utterly’, in the full, tragic sense of those words.
– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
No narrative arc connects the episodes which follow: events occur inexplicably and unexpectedly, and we feel a real sense of the unfathomable nature of life in medieval times, with death and destruction hammer into the everday world without warning. In the first episode Rublev, accompanied by two fellow monks, take shelter from the rain in a hut crowded with peasants. A jester entertains by leaping around and singing bawdy songs; suddenly soldiers enter and drag him outside, smashing his head against a tree before carting him away, unconscious.
Gradually, Rublev is revealed as a disillusioned man who cannot resist his own lustful desires, and who struggles to find beauty in a turbulent and brutal world of random violence.
When I speak of the aspiration towards the beautiful, of the ideal as the ultimate aim of art, which grows from a yearning for that ideal, I am not for a moment suggesting that art should shun the ‘dirt’ of the world. On the contrary! The artistic image is always a metonym, where one thing is substituted for another, the smaller for the greater. …Hideousness and beauty are contained within each other. This prodigious paradox, in all its absurdity, leavens life itself, and in art makes that wholeness in which harmony and tension are unified.
– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
Rublev is chosen to work with the famous icon painter Theophanes the Greek, who becomes his teacher and mentor. But when Rublev is commissioned to decorate a cathedral with The Last Judgment, he fails to complete the work because he cannot bring himself to paint admonitory scenes of souls in torment.
In scenes of astonishing violence and brutality, Tartars raid the town. When the Tartars enter the church, Rublev prevents the rape of a young woman by killing her attacker. Shaken by this event Andrei falls into self-doubt, decides to give up painting, and takes a vow of silence.
It’s the seventh and final episode that will always live in my memory of this film. In a 40-minute sequence which must be one of the greatest in cinema, Tarkovsky shows Rublev witnessing the casting of a bell. Soldiers acting on the orders of the Grand Prince search for a master artisan bell-maker to cast a giant bell. But the bell-maker has died. Impulsively, his young son tells them that his father passed on to him the secret of casting, but he’s lying.
As Rublev watches, the bell-maker’s son supervises the stages of the casting – digging the pit, selecting the clay, building of the mold, firing the furnaces and, finally, the hoisting of the bell. If he fails, he faces certain death. But, in the presence of the Grand Prince and assembled dignitaries, the bell rings perfectly.
The son collapses in tears, admitting to Rublev that he never knew the secret. Witnessing this act of artistic blind faith and seeing his younger self in the boy, Rublev breaks his vow of silence and tells the boy that they should work together: ‘You’ll cast bells. I’ll paint icons’. The camera slowly tracks outward, soaring overhead, like the inventor in his hot air balloon. Rublev’s passion is restored.
It’s at this point that the film, up until now in black-and-white, explodes into colour as, in a series of slow tracking shots, Tarkovsky has the camera linger on the exquisite details of several of Andrei Rublev’s icons, in a near-abstract montage. This is the consummation of the thread that has linked the episodes in the discontinuous narrative of the film. It is the triumph of art:
We have almost totally lost sight of the beautiful as a criterion of art: in other words, of the aspiration to express the ideal. Every age is marked by the search for truth. And however grim that truth, it still contributes to the moral health of humanity. Its recognition is a sign of a healthy time and can never be in contradiction with the moral idea. Attempts to hide the truth, cover it, keep it secret, artificially setting it against a distorted moral ideal on the assumption that the latter will be repudiated in the eyes of the majority by the impartial truth – can only mean that ideological interests have been substituted for aesthetic criteria. Only a faithful statement about the artist’s time can express a true, as opposed to a propagandist, moral ideal. This was the theme of Andrei Rublev. It looks at first sight as if the cruel truth of life as he observes it is in crying contradiction with the harmonious ideal of his work. The crux of the question, however, is that the artist cannot express the moral ideal of his time unless he touches all its running sores, unless he suffers and lives these sores himself. That is how art triumphs over grim, ‘base’ truth, clearly recognising it for what it is, in the name of its own sublime purpose: such is its destined role. For art could almost be said to be religious in that it is inspired by commitment to a higher goal. Devoid of spirituality, art carries its own tragedy within it. For even to recognise the spiritual vacuum of the times in which he lives, the artist must have specific qualities of wisdom and understanding. The true artist always serves immortality, striving to immortalise the world and man within the world.
– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
Finally, in a slow dissolve from the icons, we see (in a motif that will become familiar in subsequent films from Tarkovsky) rainwater streaming over a surface of peeling paint and then a group of horses standing by a river in the rain.
This is how Steve Rose concluded his review for The Guardian, in which he argued the case for Andrei Rublev being the best arthouse movie of all time:
Despite its apparent formlessness, Andrei Rublev is precisely structured and entirely aesthetically coherent. Acts of creation are mirrored by acts of destruction, there are themes of flight, of vision, of presence and absence; the more you look, the more you see. And then there are the horses, Tarkovsky’s perennial favourite: horses rolling over, horses charging into battle, swimming in the river, falling down stairs, dragging men out of churches. At times the screen resembles a vast Brueghel painting come to life, or a medieval tapestry unrolling. We’re always conscious of life spilling out beyond the frame, and never conscious of the fact that this was made in 60s USSR. In Tarkovsky’s own turbulent time, the film lit all manner of controversy. Its Christian spiritualism offended the Soviet authorities; its depiction of Russia’s savage history upset nationalists like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and its challenging form led to various cuts. After opening in Moscow in 1966, it was suppressed until the 1969 Cannes film festival, and didn’t reach Britain till 1973.
We don’t necessarily know, or need to know, how Andrei Rublev works or what it’s telling us, but by the end we’re in no doubt it’s succeeded. When in the final minutes, the film pulls off its most famous flourish: the screen bursts into colour and we’re finally ready to see Rublev’s paintings in extreme close-up – coming at the end of this epic journey, they can reduce a viewer to tears. As the camera pores over the details, the tiny jewels on the hem of a robe, the lines forming a pitiful expression on the face of an angel, the tarnished gilding of a halo, we feel like we understand everything that’s gone into every brushstroke. We’re reminded of what beauty is. It is as close to transcendence as cinema gets.
Amazingly, you can now legitimately watch several Tarkovsky films in their entirety for free on YouTube: Mosfilm, the Russian film studio responsible for most of his films (as well as many other classics of Soviet cinema) has released them onto the Internet with English subtitles.
- Andrei Rublev part 1 on YouTube
- Andrei Rublev part 2 on YouTube
- Andrei Rublev: the best arthouse film of all time: Guardian review by Steve Rose
- Painting icons: Jonathan Jones (The Guardian)